Have Ghost, Will Find

The weird, (somewhat) chummy fiction of W.H. Hodgson’s Carnacki: The Ghost Finder.

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When I was a kid, one of my greatest pleasures was staying up super late, when I thought everyone else was long in bed, reading Three Investigators books and getting spooked out of my mind in this easy-going, chummy kind of way. It was like I was in the company of good friends, and we were all in for some scares that we knew, collectively, we’d see our way through. I’d bargain with myself, saying, “okay, one more chapter, and then we really need to get to bed,” and on I’d read until two, three in the morning, always adding yet another chapter to my ongoing haggling until at last I gave in when I thought the sun was all set to find me out.

What appealed most to me, I now realize, was this idea of a compact between book and reader, like you were in on something together, which no one else was privy to. An element of the supernal or the fantastical tend to bolster this sense of complicity, gave the band or the gang more reasons to pull tightly together, given what everyone was fronted with. When I grew up and wrote a book of my own featuring the supernal and the fantastical, I made sure it had a subtitle that touched on that compact I remembered so fondly, which I wanted to instill between my book and a reader. And so I went with, Stories for When the Rest of the World is Asleep; which basically means, here we are, dear reader, just the two of us, while everyone dozes. Now let’s get on with some spooky stuff.

As I got older, I naturally began to look further afield for late night reading. I loved Jupiter Jones as I still do. Ghost stories were most effective, and I devoured everything by E.F. Benson and M.R. James in those witching hours. What you wanted, in those late night settings, tended to remain consistent regardless of your advancing age, I discovered: a sensation of being transported, often to the English countryside, mixed with low-key fraternity — the best late-night stories often featured a man in crisis with a stolid old sea captain or something to offer support — and a not too gruesome an end with the supernatural being, if not banished, then escaped from, natural order restored. Until the next night, of course.

Once I had exhausted the Benson and James catalogues, I kept wandering in search of new material, and discovered, to my joy, one forgotten — but often unfairly so — author after another; writers who turned up in out-of-print anthologies with but a single story, as though they had never written anything else worthy of finding itself between the covers of a book.

William Hope Hodgson, though, tended not to turn up in anthologies. He was able to stand up well enough on his own that if you wished to read him, you could track down individual books like The House on the Borderland from 1908, this eldritch proto-acid trip or a work that is part De Quincey, part Stoker, with a dash of Lovecraft, and a whole lot of Hodgson. We have no less than a discovered writer’s diary, some time travel, and hog monsters. Porcine villains are something of a Hodgson speciality. You read Hodgson, and if you go to a farm and encounter a pig, you start thinking, “back off, fella, I know what you’re capable of.”

But as much as I enjoy Borderland, I don’t return to it as often as I do Carnacki: The Ghost Finder, which came out 100 years ago. Now, I wouldn’t argue that the latter is as accomplished, from a literary standpoint, as the former, but there is nothing in supernatural fiction like the Carnacki stories, which are so idiosyncratic — and funny in awkward, David Brent-type ways — that you wonder what Hodgson was up to when he wrote them. Or what he aimed to accomplish. Or if he cared what people made of their quirks. I don’t think he did; no, what I see when I read the Carnacki stories is an author willfully, gleefully, creating stories for his own version of my game of haggling for another hour of witching hour reading in good, off-kilter company.

Carnacki himself is an Englishman, even if his name is suggestive of a villain out of a Sax Rohmer Fu Manchu novel. He has a touch of Sherlock Holmes to him, in that Carnacki is a detective, albeit of the supernatural kind — so we’re talking a one-man Ghost Hunters, really, about a century before the fact. Each story is set up exactly the same way, and despite the repetition, I laugh my ass off each time. The putative narrator of the stories — Dodgson (Hodgson/Dodgson, get it?) — starts by telling us that he and his mates (Jessop, Arkright, and Taylor) have been summoned to Carnacki’s residence, the ghost detective having returned from his latest clash with hell’s minions, or, just as often, some demented old guy or group of pranksters. You never know, exactly, what you’re going to get so far as the baddies — and explanations — go. And while I’d love to know what Edwardian guys named Jessop and Arkright (they sound like they’d be pioneering architects or archeologists, to my ears) got up to, they basically don’t get to say anything. Nor, really, does our narrator. He sets up each story, and then, in effect, Carnacki, who is very much enthused with his own voice, even when he’s listing and brooding over all of his shortcomings — like an occasional lack of courage — takes over. The group has some dinner at Carnacki’s pad, and then everyone sits at Carnacki’s feet as he puffs away on his pipe, and it’s story time.

Carnacki is an occultist, so he’s always drawing protective pentagrams and the like, but he’s also a scientist, of sorts, so between the possibility of the supernatural, the various gadgets Carnacki employs, and his idiosyncratic manner, things get a little Doctor Who-y. The stories — especially “The Whistling Room” and “The Haunted Jarvee” — are long on atmosphere, even when there’s no spook, as we learn, at the bottom of the latest caper. But we don’t need spooks with Carnacki, because Hodgson hit upon the rather clever idea of having his lead character be not only fallible, in terms of his sometimes-faltering nerve, but open about being so. In other words, these are dispatches on what it feels like to feel scared, with Carnacki providing a casebook on terror, from how it settles in the mind, to how it manifests across the body, to how it heightens, dissipates, and reoccurs through a scent in the air, or the way a ray of fading autumn sunshine reflects off a floor. “The Haunted Jarvee” is a sea tale suggestive of the early, nautical passages of Dracula, with the doomed Demeter, but here the enemy approaches from the horizon rather than the hold. Carnacki, in describing events, will sometimes work himself up into a tizzy. We get to see a man so intent on making himself clear to his friends — men who have never experienced anything like what Carnacki has experienced — that we get a most simple uttering of phrase that encapsulates what makes horror so horrible for the person consumed by it. So just as the true humorist understands that a lot of what is funny in life stems from one person being exasperated to the point of not needing to say anything — if you’re Oliver Hardy, you just shrug — the most efficacious horror writers know that nothing is worse for a terrified person than having an inability to make others aware of what they have experienced. Of there being no commonality, no understanding, no way to have other people, so to speak, help foot the burden of terror the original sufferer is enduring.

“Do I make this clear?” Carnacki asks in just about every story, practically panting as he does so. In these moments, he is not as dramatic as he otherwise likes to be — consider how Sherlock Holmes, for instance, loved his little dramatic flourishes; Carnacki would have been well into Holmes for that — but even kind of pathetic. Which is to say, much as we would be in these same scenarios, for that is how it goes when something beyond this world is having its way with you. Or so you think. What’s impressive for Hodgson is that you don’t need a ghost to tell a ghost story in the world of Carnacki. Actually, I’d counter by saying there’s something more ghostly about the stories here that leave the boogeyman well out of it. Imagination gone amuck with stimuli present to help it go amuck, is enough terror for anyone. And in darkened cloisters, with sounds tapping, and possible explanations racing through his mind, one fear being bolstered by another, Carnacki tends to freak himself out a lot — as would I, and as would you.

But by and large, this is one cool customer of a ghost hunter. The breathless exhortations of “Do I make this clear?” have a way of petering out into a kind of good-natured arrogance, and all is put back right with the world. And if you’re reading along at home, at some ungodly hour of the night, pretending you are sitting there by candlelight with Dodgson, Jessop, Taylor, and Arkright, and get concerned that you might just keep going until dawn, have no fear on that score. For at the end of every story, Carnacki — and everyone thinks this is normal and, I guess, just Carnacki-being-Carnacki — kicks the whole group out into the street, pretty violently, like he’s had enough of people for a while. Which has a nifty way of working out, as it puts him back on the trail of ghosts, would-be ghosts, and internally invented ghosts, and the reader on pace for that next nightly summons. • 7 August 2013

Colin Fleming‘s fiction has recently appeared in the VQR, Black Clock, Post Road, Boulevard, and The Southwest Review, with more work appearing of late in The Atlantic, Rolling Stone, The Boston Globe, The New Criterion, and Sports Illustrated. He is also a regular contributor to NPR’s Weekend Edition. His third book, The Anglerfish Comedy Troupe: Stories from the Abyss, is forthcoming from Dzanc in August 2015, and he is completing a novel about a reluctant piano prodigy called The Freeze Tag Sessions, and a memoir, I Am Not Like You: A Broken Man’s Attempt to Write his Way Out of Hell One Story, Book, Deadline, and Note-to-Self at a Time. Find him on the web at https://www.facebook.com/literaturetolast.
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